Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

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If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

From work with a thousand students in a thousand lecture halls, we all know how easy it can be to leave learning at the classroom door. The lesson may have been interesting, insightful, even entertaining – but if nothing changes in the learner, their thinking, action or beliefs, then was it learning at all?  Consider the difference between these two statements:

  • I taught them how to tie their shoes, but they still can’t do it!
  • I helped them learn how to tie their shoes and they’ve been doing it ever since.

There is a fascinating idea from social development theory that it is the appreciation, use and application of something by another that gives it true definition. So, if they “still can’t” tie their shoes, then was it really teaching?

Leadership development needs to be transformational in its impact. Whether that is a complete reinvention by someone of their identity as a leader, arising from intense self-reflection, or a new perspective on just one aspect of how to lead, the transformation needs to be fully committed and sustainable. A multi-faceted, experiential learning environment is the basis for such transformations, combining variety, examples, appropriate models, challenging experiences, reflection, individualised feedback, strong opportunities for professional and social exchange, and, critically, opportunities for self-directed learning.

When we designed the Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme we set ourselves the goal of including, among a variety of innovative elements, an entirely self-directed group activity.  We came up with Challenge Groups: groups of three or four participants from different higher education institutions working together on a common area of leadership challenge. Step one would involve each Challenge Group identifying a question of high current relevance to all group members that could become the basis for an active enquiry process. The Challenge Groups would then work independently alongside the eight months of the programme itself to explore the question from multiple perspectives using their own institutional contexts as a resource, and also looking more widely, possibly at other sectors. While we did not have a formal assessment mechanism, we built in the use of feedback. This came from tutors on the original question and proposal (including a tailored stimulus webinar for each group), from peers through a mid-point review, and then from peers and tutors through online comments on the finished work.

As part of their application to join the FPD programme, all participants were asked to identify three leadership challenges: a people challenge, a change challenge and a stakeholder challenge. The information provided formed the basis for deciding the Challenge Groups, clustering participants so far as we could around common themes or areas of interest. It was then a delight to see the questions which emerged as the groups identified their area for shared, collaborative enquiry.

Three of the areas explored by the first cohort of FPD included:

  • Leading potential and performance – particularly the difference between leading performance and managing performance, and the role of personal inspiration.
  • Achieving common goals with influential stakeholders where there may be conflicting priorities – and developing as part of this a model of influence specifically tailored for the higher education context and its values.
  • How to achieve change through a collaborative approach – based on survey responses, a set of overarching recommendations were produced for collaborative, cross-boundary leadership.

Other groups looked at the role of trust and values in authentic leadership, developing a template communication strategy for leading change, and managing the needs of diverse stakeholders through complex change.

As well as the impressive outputs, and the sharing of these, we also invited participants to reflect on the process of engaging in the Challenge Group activity, particularly the group development, the sharing of leadership, and the cross-institutional/cross-service working.  These reflections showed how strongly participants had valued sharing different perspectives, building relationships, working through the uncertainty of defining the task, seeing roles and strengths emerge, and the opportunity for independent working and research.  There was also high value in delivering a tangible outcome, with both group and individual benefits firmly linked to real work-based leadership challenges.

Through self-direction, within the framework of a fully supported programme, the participants found a new gateway to both personal discovery and lasting professional friendships.

In his ambitious model of Vertical Leadership Development, Nick Petrie argues for the importance of ‘colliding perspectives’ (the who), ‘heat experiences’ (the what) and ‘elevated sensemaking’ (the how), and it was rewarding to see how some of the FPD Challenge Group work, alongside other experiential elements on FPD such as live case studies, business simulations and strategic dialogues, went a long way towards achieving this.  As Malcolm Gladwell powerfully observed “we learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction”.

As the quote below highlights, one of the other clear benefits of an extended leadership programme with a variety of types of learner engagement, including significant self-directed elements and action learning, is the relationships that form, with a life beyond the programme itself.

“The Future Professional Directors programme content and people were amazing and challenging. Having so many like-minded people in one room gave us the ability to talk freely and openly about the opportunities and challenges we face in the sector. We will remain a close network for years to come. With its mix of presentations, live case studies and visiting externals from academic and professional services, the programme gave us personal confidence and practical insight into what it takes to be an authentic leader in our large complex organisations in the 21st century.”

Chris Parry, University of Nottingham, head of global IT change delivery – academic portfolio

Doug Parkin is programme director of Future Professional Directors, working alongside Tracy Bell Reeves, both at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Doug is also the author of ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The key guide to designing and delivering courses’.  The book explores contemporary ideas on leadership, engagement and student learning into a practical solutions-based resource designed for those undertaking the challenge of leading a university-level teaching module, programme or suite of programmes, particularly through periods of transformation or change. 

Find out more: Future Professional Directors